Friday, July 09, 2010

The Whispered Sigh of Grateful Souls

The Whispered Sigh of Grateful Souls
By Mark Justice

Truth may seem, but cannot be:
Beauty brag, but 'tis not she;
Truth and beauty buried be.

To this urn let those repair
That are either true or fair
For these dead birds sigh a prayer.

--William Shakespeare
“The Phoenix and the Turtle”

“Mommy, why do we collect?”

“Because our grandmothers did it and their grandmothers and their grandmothers. Because it’s a sacred obligation and duty, for those still here and those who are gone.”


The little girl skipped down the sidewalk, gracefully turned onto the driveway, and continued her joyful romp to the carport door, whereupon she knocked three times, the rapping somehow musical and happy.

She stood patiently, all freckles and gap-toothed smile, dressed in new jeans, pink sneakers, a windbreaker and a pink t-shirt picturing cartoon super hero girls. She held a wicker picnic basket that would not be out of place in a fairy tale.

The door opened and a small woman with blue hair peered out. It took the woman a moment to focus in on her visitor, but when she did she flashed her dentures in a friendly smile.

“Hi, Mrs. McKenzie.” the girl said.

“Is that little Rachel Dowling?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

“My, you’ve sprouted up like a weed. How are old you now?”


The woman clapped her hands together in delight. “Eight. Oh, that’s such a wonderful age.” She held the door open wide. “Come in, come in.”

Rachel hopped up the step and into the house. Mrs. McKenzie took tiny, slow steps as she crossed the kitchen. She went to a cabinet and pulled out a plate. She opened a cookie jar shaped like a puppy and removed several Oreo cookies, which she placed on the plate. She then took down a glass and filled it with milk from the refrigerator.

“Have a seat dear.”

Even though Rachel was in a bit of a hurry, she pulled out a chair from the kitchen table and sat. Mommy said that old people were sometimes a little lonely and forgetful, so you should always be kind and patient with them.

Mrs. McKenzie sat the plate and glass in front of Rachel, then took the seat opposite her. She smiled at Rachel. “Eat, sweetie. You’re a growing girl.”

She took a bite of the cookie. It was too soft and smelled like cardboard. Rachel wondered how long it had been in the puppy jar. She picked up the glass of milk, thankfully smelling the sour odor before it got to her lips. She pretended to swallow some, then choked down the dry piece of cookie. She didn’t want to offend Mrs. McKenzie.

“Mmmm,” Rachel said.

“Is this your first Collection?”

Rachel, still trying to swallow the dry cookie, shook her head. When the lump finally went down her throat, she said, “Last year was my first. This is my second. It’s Mandy Rogers’ first time, though.”

Mrs. McKenzie sat back in her chair and stared at the ceiling. She was smiling. “First Collection,” she said. “How I remember mine. I was so frightened.” She looked at Rachel. “Were you frightened?”

Rachel shrugged. “A little, I guess. But Mommy told me what to expect. And my cousin Trish was there. She’s done, like, six of them.”

Mrs. McKenzie patted Rachel’s hand. “Enjoy it while you can, sweetie. It doesn’t work when you get older. You lose the gift.” She pulled a crumpled–and stained–tissue from the pocket of her sweater and blew her nose on it. She then opened the tissue to examine her fresh deposit. She sighed, and slowly stood up. “I better go get it, dear. You didn’t come here to listen to me babble on. Have some more cookies.”

When Mrs. McKenzie was out of the room, Rachel rushed to the sink and poured out the milk.She sat with her hands folded on the table until the old woman came back.

“Here you go,” Mrs. McKenzie said. She handed Rachel something that looked like a watch, but without the watchband or any cool cartoon characters on the face. “It was Henry’s favorite pocket watch. He was so proud of it. I just wound it. Listen.”

Rachel held the watch to her ear. The ticking was much louder than she would have expected.

“Thank you, Mrs. McKenzie,” she said. She carefully placed the watch in her basket, where it softly clinked against the other items she had collected..

“Oh, Henry,” Mrs. McKenzie said. She removed the soiled tissue from her pocket and blew her nose again.

“I have to go. I’ll see you next year,” she said.

Mrs. McKenzie was crying, so Rachel let herself out.


“Why can’t boys do it, Mommy?

“They don’t have the sight. Most girls don’t either. But you do, whether you want it or not. Don’t be scared.”


The air smelled like Jack-O-Lanterns and mystery. Rachel skipped down the driveway to the street and saw some of her fellow Collectors gathered there. She joined them, thankful for the hundredth time that they got Collection day off from school.

“What’s that?” she asked Mandy Rogers. Mandy was a chubby girl who carried a large white object at her side.

“A leg,” Mandy said. She held up the thing for all to see. It was a leg, made of some kind of plastic. It was adult sized, with straps at the top that were brown and stained with large spots.

“Ewwww,” Cynthia Hart said.

“That’s gross,” Samantha Green added.

Mandy looked like she was going to cry. “I asked Mrs. Irwin if she had something else, something littler, but she said it had to be Mr. Irwin’s fake leg.” Her lower lip started to tremble. Mandy was a first year collector. Some first years had a hard time of it.
Rachel’s mother had told her that she had to step up this year, especially because her cousin Trish was now too old to take part, and Gwen Thomas’ family moved to North Carolina. Gwen would have been a fourth year this fall. Rachel didn’t even know if they had Collection day in North Carolina.

She took the leg from Mandy. “I’ll carry it. I don’t mind. Take my basket.” A grateful Mandy took traded with Rachel. Cynthia and Samantha looked shocked. Cynthia was a second year, like Rachel. Sam was a third year, but she was content to do what Rachel said.

The plastic leg was heavier than it looked, and it smelled like pee. Rachel tried to breathe through her mouth.

“Get anything cool?” she asked the others.

Sam shrugged and pulled a book from her tote bag. It was an old paperback called The Sun Also Rises. “Mr. Schwartz sent a book. How dumb is that?”

“‘It if was important to the person,” Rachel repeated the lesson Mommy had taught her, “ then treat it like it’s gold’. It’s not dumb, Sam. I hope you didn’t say that to Mr. Schwartz.”

“No, I didn’t,” Sam said, giving Rachel a dirty look. “But I wanted to. He’s not very nice and he has bad breath. And hair growing out of his ears.”

“Ewwww,” Cynthia said. It was her favorite expression.

“What do you have?’ Rachel said.

Cynthia opened her Barbie purse and removed a huge TV remote. The numbers on it were so big Rachel could’ve have seen them from the end of the block.


“Yeah,” Cynthia said. “Mrs. Oldham said it was Mr. Oldham’s favorite thing.”

“I bet that could open garage doors,” Mandy said, and they all laughed. Rachel was glad Mandy was feeling better.

“Okay, take your stuff home. We’ll met up at Mandy’s house at six for Trick or Treat.” She turned to Mandy. “If you get tired, take a nap, ‘cause you have to be sharp tonight.”

Mandy suddenly looked nervous, but she nodded. Rachel remembered how she had felt last year, like she had to go potty all day long.

“You’ll do great,” she said. “See you tonight.”


“What if it we don’t do it, Mommy?”

“Don’t say that, honey. Don’t even think that.”

“I’m sorry, Mommy. Please don’t look scared.”


They all wore costumes with masks. Mommy told her that it was a tradition. That way, the people they had collected from earlier in the day wouldn’t recognize them, and wouldn’t think too much about that fact that Rachel and the others were just kids.

And they certainly weren’t going to miss Trick or Treat.

So Rachel dressed like Wonder Woman, complete with a golden lasso and a mask with small eyeholes and tiny slits in the nose and mouth for her to breathe through.

The night was quite warm for October and she was hot. Not, however, as hot as Mandy. The heavy girl was dressed as a ghost, her outfit a thick blanket quilted by her mother, with two openings for her eyes.

After their last house, Mandy had pulled off the blanket and stood sweating in what little breeze there was. “I can’t do it anymore,” she gasped. She dug into her candy bag and opened a chocolate bar.

“One more house,” Rachel said through her Wonder Woman face. “And put your costume back on, or she’ll recognize you.”

“It’s not a costume, it’s a comforter,” Mandy said. But she licked the chocolate from her fingers, wiped the sweat from her eyes and slipped the blanket over her body.

Samantha and Cynthia–in two identical Fairy Princess costumes–led the way up to the porch, where they knocked simultaneously on the door.

“Trick or Treat!” they shouted in practiced unison when Mrs. Irwin door’s opened. The woman was ancient. Bent over from age, she had white hair and brown spots on her hands and face She was dressed in a plain blue dress and a white shawl. Her eyes were huge behind her glasses. A small colander full of suckers was clutched to her chest.

She dropped suckers in Cynthia’s bag, then Sam’s. Rachel let Mandy go next. After she received her sucker, the blanket-covered girl ran down the steps and around the corner to remove her stifling costume.

It was Rachel’s turn. She stepped to the open door and held open her Trick or Treat bag.

Instead of dropping a sucker in it, Mrs. Irwin looked at her with those giant hoot owl eyes.

“You’re the Dowling girl, ain’t you?”

Rachel didn’t say anything. She started to sweat beneath her Wonder Woman mask.

“I know it’s you. I recognized your fat friend. She was just here this morning.”

“I’m not to supposed to talk about it now,” Rachel said, her voice muffled through the mask.

“You have to do me a favor. I don’t think Frank would want me to send the leg. I really don’t.”

“Mrs. Irwin, you can’t change it now.”

“Please. I made a mistake. I wouldn’t want anybody to think–” She started crying, almost
doubling over from her sadness, allowing Rachel to see that she had a small hump on her back.

Rachel couldn’t break the rules. But she couldn’t let Mrs. Irwin be sad, either.

“What is it?” she said.

Mrs. Irwin dug down into the suckers and brought up a shiny object. It was a pocket knife, like Rachel’s Grandpappy carried. The sides were covered in knobby black plastic

“He loved this. Especially after the accident. He would sit out here and whittle on a stick for hours every day. Take it, please.”

Rachel sighed and held open her Trick or Treat bag. Mrs. Irwin dropped in the knife, which landed softly among the candy bars.


“Can they hurt me?”

“They can’t touch you, honey. Not your body, anyway. Sometimes they touch you on the inside.”


By midnight, it had grown colder and the air smelled of wood smoke. Rachel’s mother escorted them to the gate of the cemetery.

“Can’t you go in with us?” Mandy asked.

Rachel’s mother just smiled. Rachel thought it was a little sad, that smile.

“You know she can’t,” Rachel said. “It won’t work if she comes. Let’s go.”

As they entered the cemetery, Rachel glanced at her mother. Mommy was looking at her with pride. Rachel turned back to her friends and–carrying the false leg–she led them into the darkness.

It was midnight.

“I can’t see anything,” Mandy said.

Samantha giggled.

“Don’t worry, you will,” Cynthia said.

Rachel took Mandy’s hand.

The four of them stopped at the grave of Tilda Schwartz. In the pale moonlight, the words on the small headstone were unreadable. That was okay. Rachel had memorized all of their stops.

“When does it happen?” Mandy whispered.

“Now,” Rachel said.

The light seemed to come from everywhere at once, coalescing at a spot just above the headstone. Every color Rachel had ever seen was in that light, along with some she had no name for. The light grew from a ball, lengthening and widening until it had the shape and the size of a person.

The face was indistinct, but it had indentations where eyes and a mouth would be. It wasn’t as much a face, as an impression of one.

“Oh,” Mandy said. “Oh-oh-oh.”

Rachel heard Samantha’s sharp intake of breath. No one was giggling now.

The apparition hovered above the headstone. Rachel took a step closer.

“Hello, Mrs. Schwartz.”

The face moved, fixing Rachel with its glowing, empty gaze.

“Welcome home.”

The head turned slowly, back and forth, questioning. The part of the face that seemed to be a mouth grew larger and they heard a sound like the soft rustling flannel sheets made as you turned in bed on a winter night. It wasn’t a scary noise, but it was a lonely one. It made Rachel think about being locked away in a tiny room.

Mandy started to cry. Rachel squeezed her hand.

“It’ll be fine,” she whispered. “Now, Samantha.”

Samantha stepped forward and sat the paperback book on top of the headstone.
The apparition floated down to the stone. Its head moved over the book. After a moment, the head lifted, and the hollow of the mouth grew wide. What they heard was so quiet, like the sound of a dry leaf blown by the autumn wind.

Rachel thought it sounded like “Thank you.”

“You’re welcome,” she said.

They left Mrs. Schwartz to enjoy her gift from the living world.

The rest of the night was spent visiting the other graves and offering the gifts Rachel and her friends had collected.

Mr. Irwin danced around his artificial leg.

Mr. McKenzie pressed an ethereal ear to his pocket watch.

Old Man Oldham caressed his remote control with intangible hands.

And on it went, until the entire cemetery was illuminated by the soul light of the town’s departed residents.

In the end, even Mandy was smiling and clapping her hands. She didn’t want to leave.

“But I want to watch,” she told Rachel.

“It’s their time now. They only get one night a year.”

“But what about their stuff?”

“We’ll come back and get it tomorrow,’ Rachel said. “Don’t worry. No one will bother it.”

Rachel’s mother was waiting for them at the gate. The mother and daughter walked each girl home before returning to their own house.

After she put on her pajamas, Mommy tucked her into bed. Rachel’s Daddy and brother were already sleeping.

“You did a great job, honey. I’m very proud of you.” She kissed Rachel’s forehead.


“What is it?”

“How long will I be able to see them?”

“It depends, Punkin. Maybe as long as four more years, until you start to grow up a little more. Would that be okay?”

Rachel nodded.

Her mother stood up and turned off the light. Before she could close the door, Rachel called for her.


“Will I be there one day?”

“Maybe. A lot can change over a lifetime, Punkin.”

“Will you be there?”


“Who will come to see you?”

“Maybe your little girl.”

“And I can walk her home?”

“That’s right. Now go to sleep.”

She did. She dreamed of dancing lights that smiled and thanked her in hushed voices.

© 2006, 2010 Mark Justice

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